Pseudo Sustainability: How to Avoid the Greenwashing Trap

What does it mean to be an eco-conscious brand?

Key Takeaways

  1. Today’s consumers are savvy to greenwashing and are not easily swayed by sustainability language in marketing
  2. In order to be truly sustainable brands need to look at both their environmental and social impact
  3. Environmentalism should be ingrained in your business plan from the get-go, not tacked on later as an afterthought

Eco-chic, biodegradable, conscious, recycled, climate positive, future-proof, local, and low-impact. All of these phrases are used by brands large and small to signal an allegiance to environmentalism—but to today’s marketing-savvy shoppers, they’re little more than empty signifiers, like buy now advertisements, or feminist t-shirts from Maria Grazia’s Dior. 

To be a sustainable clothing brand during the anthropocene is oxymoronic. At it’s best, the word sustainable signals a belief in climate change, a simple nod to the fact that we are contributing to the demise of our global ecosystem. But for the more eco-conscious consumer (another popular environmentalist motif), to call a clothing company sustainable is to greenwash over an industry that is fundamentally toxic to our planet. In other words, it’s impossible to be an environmentalist when producing consumer goods.

This may be a harsh reality for brands doing their best to lessen their ecological footprint. But in an industry that is, according to estimates from The World Bank, responsible for 10% of the carbon emissions in our air, the only green production is no production at all. This doesn’t mean that brands should give up on the pursuit of environmentally friendly practices. Rather that we should all do our part to change the way we both produce goods and consume them. But where to begin? 

Popular “sustainable fabrics” like Lyocell, a toxin-free cotton alternative constructed from wood pulp, already have a poor track record. Other organic alternatives like rose silk provide a cruelty-free alternative to their forebears, but carry a hefty price tag—and tend to sound more environmental than they actually are. What’s more, designations for ethically sourced materials are often unreliable, and in an industry that is largely self-regulated, it’s nearly impossible to guarantee whether the materials you are sourcing are, infact, sustainably produced. 

Brands like Allbirds, a Silicon Valley direct to consumer startup known for it’s knit sneakers, sidestep this issue by going “carbon neutral”. Rather than promising sustainable production practices, they purchase carbon offsets from third party companies that do things “like protect trees that capture and store carbon, build wind energy, and prevent harmful greenhouse gasses from entering our atmosphere.” But this too has its pitfalls. Off-setting environmental impact after polluting the planet is like deliberately spilling a glass of milk and having a mop on standby. Afterthoughts don’t make for environmentalism.  

What does it mean to be sustainable, anyway? In an industry known for exploitation and subpar working conditions, it’s not enough to simply trade new fabrics for recycled ones. When we talk about fashion’s impact on the planet, we also need to take into consideration the people who are producing our clothes. That means ensuring that the suppliers and factories you work with have fair working conditions and pay their employees a good, living wage. “If you look at sustainability, it has an environmental dimension, an economic dimension and a social dimension,” Stefan Seidel, chair of the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action’s steering committee and head of corporate sustainability at Puma, told Business of Fashion in a recent interview. “It cannot be one or two topics only that you focus on.”

As a result, doing the right thing can be expensive, and even prohibitory to young brands who lack funds to produce their clothing in an ethical way. Still, smaller companies may have an easier time lessening their impact on the planet than larger ones with an even bigger output. How? Up-and-coming businesses have the opportunity to think about how they want to scale their brands. This might mean making a commitment to using lab grown leather or producing collections locally rather than overseas. 

More significant, however, is determining the purpose behind your brand. Are you creating small, permanent collections of desirable, easy-to-wear clothes? Or are you playing into wasteful trend cycles that encourage consumers to buy cheap, disposable outfits? In a world full of waste looking to the future means focusing on the former. And this makes sense economically, too. The less SKUs you produce, the higher the chance what you’re making will sell—instead of ending up on the (literal) burn pile. 

For those looking for ways to make their production lines more sustainable, the first step is reevaluating your business plan as a whole. This means auditing everything from the greenhouse gases emitted from factories you employ, to ensuring that the packatging you use is biodegradable and ethically produced. But it doesn’t stop there. There’s shipping, distribution, and even the durability of the goods you produce to consider. This may sound like a lot, but ultimately it comes down to your mission. If you truly want to build a sustainable company, these issues need to be ingrained into your business plan from the get-go. That means taking into consideration the environmental impact of everything you do, not just the fabrics you choose to work with.

Tips for creating a sustainable brand:

  1. Do your research - is the sustainable fabric you’re sourcing ethically produced? Are the employees at your factory paid a living wage? Without doing your research, it’s easy to gloss over details. The more you know, the better.
  2. Always put ethics before marketing - if you’re adopting a “green” marketing plan, you should first take into consideration whether or not what you are doing is truly sustainable. There’s nothing worse than getting caught green-handed, without the adopting the practices to support your environmentalist messaging.
  3. Produce only what you can sell - one of the biggest mistakes designers make is producing more than they can sell. Not only does having excess inventory risk diluting the value of your brand (discounts, fire sales) but it also results in more waste in the world.